A few years back...well, about 10 years, actually...I started work on a book that was to be a sort of pop history of the Chinese revolution, focusing on Zhou Enlai and to a lesser extent, Mao. My intention was not to write a scholarly work - I'm not a scholar - but instead to provide people with no particular background in Chinese history an account that would be both accurate (to the extent I could make it) and entertaining (ditto).
Since I don't have anything particularly intelligent to say about, oh, Chinese oil companies bidding for American oil companies (except to note that if we had any kind of serious alternate energy and energy conservation programs going on in the US, it wouldn't be such a big flippin' deal, now, would it?!), I thought I might post a bit of this work in progress, long interrupted as it might be. I'll note that the writing is kind of stiff and rough in places - thankfully, I've learned a little about craft in the last 10 years, maybe even enough to pick the thing back up and finish it. But be that as it may, here's a little bit to start...
"Mao Zedong and I were Beggars'
"Even though history is basically gossip, it is better to know the truth."
Princess Elizabeth Karadjordjevic of the former Yugoslavia
(People Magazine, 5/27/96 p.76)
I. Village Idols
Mao Zedong's earliest available piece of writing dates from June 1912. At the time, Mao was eighteen, a first year student in a Changsha middle school. He had started his formal education late, and once started, was prone to interruptions: most recently, a brief stint in the provincial army that had spent the last six months marching raggedly around Hunan Province in half-hearted support of an already co-opted revolution.
In this school essay, which was well-regarded by his teacher and circulated throughout the class, exemplary passages marked by the teacher's circles and dots, Mao praises Shang Yang, a Prime Minister of Qin during the Warring States period that occurred during the long decline of the Zhou Dynasty. This was a time lasting from approximately 480 to 221 BC in which internecine rivalries and barbarian invasions tore apart an already weakening central authority. What was finally left were seven armed states capable of conquering their less organized neighbors and waging war upon each other, duking it out for supremacy.
Shang Yang, who lived from around 390 to 338 BC was from the Kingdom of Wei, just north of the Yellow River. Old Wei comprises the northern portion of modern Henan province, an area that can claim to be the birthplace of proto-Chinese civilization, home of the first real dynasty, the Shang, that rose around 1650 BC and fell some six hundred years later.
Shang Yang's original name was Kungsun Yang, "Kungsun" being his clan name. But Shang Yang is the name he is known by. He was not a figure traditionally singled out for praise. A Grand Historian of the Han Dyansty, Suma Qian, had this to say in his summary of Shang Yang's character: "Lord Shang had a cruel nature;" he was "false," and inhumane.
Shang Yang was descended from a royal house, regrettably through a concubine. As a young man, he served as an officer under Kungshu Tso, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Wei. When this Prime Minister became ill, the King of Wei came to him and asked him to recommend a successor. "Shang Yang is a young man of many gifts," Kungshu Tso replied. "I hope you will consider him." The king fell silent. Appoint Shang Yang? That insignificant nobody? Absurd! Obviously Kungshu's illness had severely affected his judgement.
Noting the King's silence, Kungshu sent the attendants and officers away. He waited until the two were alone, the King and his minister. "If you do not appoint him Prime Minister," he advised the king, "then you must kill him."
The next day, Prime Minister Kungshu regretted his words, and wishing to save his protege, he told Shang Yang what he had said to the king. Flee from Wei now, Kungshu Tso told him, or certainly the King will have you put to death. But Shang Yang wasn't worried. "If he ignored your advice to make me Prime Minster, why should he listen to your advice to have me killed?"
Shang Yang remained in Wei until his patron Kungshu died, waiting for an appropriate opportunity to act upon his ambitions. It came from the neighboring kingdom of Qin to the west, a powerful though primitive place whose ruling house, according to some accounts, was descended from a horse-dealer - code for "not quite Chinese," horses being associated with mounted raiders from the North.
The old kingdom of Qin was comprised of present-day Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, known for the massive tomb of the First Emperor, with its ranks of terracotta warriors and horse-drawn chariots. In 221 BC, First Emperor Zheng would unite all of China with Qin's armies. But in Shang Yang's time, Qin was considered incompletely civilized. "Qin...has the heart of a tiger or a wolf," sniffed a nobleman of Wei. "It is greedy and untrustworthy. It is ignorant of polite matters, proper relationships and upright behavior. Whenever the opportunity arises, it will treat relatives as if they were mere animals." Qin was also in great need of competent administrators, and the king, Xiao, was seeking able candidates - the perfect opportunity for a talented young man of ambiguous background.
Shang Yang came to power this way: he had four audiences with King Xiao, arranged by Xiao's favorite eunuch. Eunuchs, for those curious, generally got that way through punishment, because of a political or criminal transgression, or the misfortune of capture in battle (nothing like literal emasculation to really show who's boss). Once created, there was a place for eunuchs in the courts of Chinese rulers, who often claimed divine descent. A divine being could not reveal his private life to ordinary men, but a eunuch was not ordinary; he was considered neither man nor woman, and there was no place for him outside palace walls. More to the point, in the Inner Court, there could be only "one man," the Emperor - no potential competition with the Imperial seed allowed. Eunuchs became integral components of the Imperial system, mediators between the emperor and his concubines, playmates to princes, and at times their subterranean power would control the Empire's destiny.
The King was not impressed by Shang at first; in fact, during the first audience, Xiao fell asleep. Qing, the eunuch, reproached Shang for his less than stimulating presentation. "I spoke to him about the emperor's way," Shang explained to Qing, "but he lacks the necessary enlightenment." Five days later, Shang was granted a second audience. This time, King Xiao did not fall asleep, but he still complained to his eunuch about Shang's foolishness. Shang shrugged it off. "I spoke to him about the king's way," Shang told Qing, "but he still did not understand." Shang begged for another audience. This time, Xiao was pleased, though still reluctant to take Shang into his service. "I spoke to him about the conqueror's way," said Shang, "and now he considers me. The next time, I will convince him."
The fourth and final audience lasted for days. The King sat next to Shang and showed no signs of weariness. "My master is delighted," Qing the eunuch exclaimed. "How did you do it?"
"Before I spoke to him of the emperor's way and the king's way," Shang replied. "I made comparisons to the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, which lasted nearly a thousand years. But the King said, 'those ways would take too long. A good ruler should make his mark in his own lifetime, not wait a hundred years to achieve the emperor's way or the king's way.' So I told him how to make his state powerful, and he was overjoyed. But he will never equal Shang and Zhou."
Shang was known as a radical reformer, the source of much of his appeal to Mao Zedong. The Grand Historian records that upon entering the King's service, Shang immediately proposed a list of new laws designed to increase Qin's prosperity by changing the basic social structure of Qin society. The King feared popular resistance and declined to introduce Shang's proposals. "Those who hesitate to act win no fame," Shang argued, "and those who falter in their course achieve nothing. Those who outdo others are condemned by the world. Those who see further than others are mocked by the mob. Fools are blind to what already exists, whereas the wise perceive what is yet to come. It is no use consulting the people at the start, but one can enjoy the fruits with them."
Mao would seem to concur. The title of his essay, "On How Shang Yang Established Confidence by the Moving of the Pole," refers to Shang Yang's tactical approach to introducing his reform decrees. For King Xiao was right about one thing: such radical changes were sure to provoke controversy, and in a populace that had little reason to trust the sincerity of its rulers, the measures' effectiveness would be undermined from the start. If I were popular among the people, Shang Yang reasoned, if they believed that I was a man of my word, there would be fewer protests and greater co-operation.
To establish his trustworthiness, Shang Yang offered ten measures of gold to anyone who could move a thirty-foot pole from the south to the north gate of the capital. One man succeeded, and Shang Yang gave him fifty measures of gold instead, a demonstration of his lack of deception.
To Mao, this was an example of "the wasted efforts of those who yield power," having to bribe a population too foolish to recognize a good ruler when they had one. "From this, we can understand the origins of our people's ignorance and darkness during the past several millennia, a tragedy that has brought our country to the brink of destruction. Nevertheless, at the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the masses always dislike it." Even if it was for the masses' own good.
"Shang Yang's laws were good laws," Mao wrote. "If you have a look today at the four thousand-odd years for which our country's history has been recorded...is not Shang Yang one of the very first on the list?" Mao lists Lord Shang's accomplishments: he conquered the surrounding states and unified the central plain, establishing the prestige of the Qin state; he passed laws "to punish the wicked and rebellious, in order to preserve the rights of the people. He stressed agriculture and weaving, in order to increase the wealth of the people...He made slaves of the indigent and idle, in order to put an end to waste. This amounted to a great policy such as our country had never had before. How could the people fear and not trust him, so that he had to use the scheme of setting up the pole to establish confidence?" Stupidity was the only possible explanation.
Well, stupidity combined with rigid conformity and the enduring power of a conservative ruling class fearful of any change that could threaten their position. Predictably, King Xiao's other ministers counseled against accepting Shang Yang's reforms. Don't discard tradition, they advised. Educate people according to custom, and there will be little discontent.
"A wise man creates laws," Shang Yang responded, "but a worthless man is controlled by them. A talented man performs rites, but a worthless man is enslaved by them. With a man who is controlled by laws, it is useless to discuss change: with a man who is enslaved by rites, it is useless to discuss reform. Let your Highness not hesitate."
Impressed by Shang Yang's intelligence and resolve, King Xiao approved the new laws. They were numerous, and far-reaching. In Shang Yang's own words (or words attributed to him in The Book Of Shang Yang), "the one who could conquer the strongest enemy, is he who regarded as his first task the conquering of his own people."
This was how Shang Yang went about it: "First, the people were divided into groups of five and ten households, mutually responsible for each other. Those who failed to denounce a criminal would be cut in two; those who denounced him would be rewarded as if they had beheaded an enemy." The people were compelled to work in the "fundamental occupations" of farming and weaving; tradesmen, the idle and the destitute were enslaved. Yang's reforms rewarded merit in battle with the granting of titles. Particularly productive farmers were exempted from certain taxes and from otherwise mandatory labour on public works. Those who violated the laws were swiftly and surely punished, even the nobility - though when the crown prince broke the law, Yang could not punish him directly. Instead, he ordered the faces of the prince's tutor and guardian to be tattooed. Suspected troublemakers were banished to the far frontiers, and only the worthy were allowed to make public displays. In Qin, little value was placed on scholarship; ceremonies were not performed, nor music. Shang Yang stressed martial virtues, and those nobles who failed to distinguish themselves in battle lost their ranks. In Shang Yang's military philosophy, there was little room for chivalry in battle as it had been practiced in the past. Victory was the thing, the taking of the enemy's heads a concrete indication of valor.
After ten years, the people of Qin were well-content and materially comfortable. The hills were free of bandits, the towns competently governed, and if you lost something on the road, not one of your mutually responsible Qin countrymen would pocket it for his own use. Someone might report such an individual, after all.
Shang Yang was promoted to the sixteenth rank, only four steps below the highest level in Qin. He then led an army to conquer a city in Wei, the homeland that had not recognized his talent, after which he built himself a palace, with many archways.
He decided to impose new laws. Fathers, sons and brothers were forbidden to live together in the same house, in order to lessen the traditional influence of clans and families and increase the power of the central state. Shang Yang divided Qin into thirty-one countries, grouping villages and towns together to form them. He introduced regular taxation and standardized weights and measures. It was around this time that the prince's tutor, Lord Qian, broke the law again. Shang Yang ordered his nose cut off. By now the state of Qin was so powerful that the King of Zhou sent sacrificial meat to King Xiao.
Shang Yang turned his attention again to the neighboring state of Wei. He defeated the Wei army at Maling, capturing their prince and killing their general. "Wei is like a cancer in our heart," he advised King Xiao. "Either Wei will annex us, or we must annex Wei." The King agreed and gave Shang Yang command of an army to march on Wei.
Shang Yang and the Wei commander, Lord Ang, were old friends. As the opposing armies prepared to fight, Shang Yang sent Lord Ang a message, urging that as old friends, they meet and feast together, swear their good faith and withdraw their troops so that Qin and Wei could live in peace. Lord Ang agreed to the parlay. As the two drank toasts to each other, armed men under Shang Yang's orders seized Lord Ang, and Qin's army ambushed Wei's encamped troops. Eventually the King of Wei was forced to sue for peace, offering up all of Wei's lands west of the Yellow River, necessitating a move of his capital. "I should have taken Kungshu Tso's advise," the King of Wei supposedly said. I should have made Shang Yang Prime Minister or killed him.
King Xiao chose to grant Shang Yang lands in Shang and Wu, making him Lord Shang and then Prime Minister of Qin.
But Lord Shang had made a lot of enemies. Among the nobles, who resented their loss of privilege, the tattooed faces and missing noses among them a permanent reminder of the humiliation suffered by members of their rank. Among the common people, who may have profited materially from Lord Shang's rule but who also bore the brunt of his repressive laws: the fathers, sons and brothers who wished to live together in the same house. A respected recluse tried in vain to warn Lord Shang that a ruler who failed to win support would soon fall. A man who relies on force instead of virtue will perish, warned this philosopher. Return your lands, abandon your palaces; better now for you to retreat to a farm and work the soil, if you wish to keep your life. Advise the duke to honor the wise men who live in caves, advise him to care for the aging and the helpless, to reward virtue. If you continue to rule as a dictator, provoking the hatred of the common people, your end will come swiftly.
Lord Shang did not take this advice. Not surprisingly, when the crown prince came to power after Duke Xiao's death, the nobles quickly banded together and declared Shang Yang a traitor.
He fled the capital, seeking refuge at an obscure country inn close to the frontier. But the innkeeper, not recognizing his former Prime Minister, would not allow him to stay the night. "According to the laws of Lord Shang, I shall be punished if I take in a man without a permit," the innkeeper told him.
Shang Yang was said to have sighed, saying, "So I am suffering from my own laws."
Fleeing Qin, he sought refuge in Wei, but Wei had not forgotten Shang Yang's treachery toward Lord Ang and drove him back across the border. Eventually Lord Shang was killed in battle, his body torn from limb to limb, his family put to death, all done as a lesson regarding those who in their arrogance would press the power of the state beyond all acceptable limits. Who would reserve too much power for themselves. "The bad end he came to in Qin was no more than he deserved," wrote Suma Qian.
At least this was the Grand Historian's version.
And perhaps Mao Zedong was right to be suspicious of this account of official history, for weren't such "histories" the creation of officials, persons with an interest in how events of the past were portrayed in relation to their own actions of the present? After all, Shang Yang's Legalist philosophy was anathema to a staunch Confucianist like Suma Qian. No wonder Shang Yang himself advised King Xiao to proscribe the "Book of Odes" and the "Book of History." His acts would be magnified a little over a hundred years later, when the First Emperor ordered the burning of works of literature and philosophy written prior to his reign, so that "the past could not discredit the present."